How to taste wine

Would you like to know how to taste wine like an expert? It's not as hard as it seems, just follow our guide below.

Good conditions are key

Studies have shown that both background noises and loud music can impair our ability to taste. But a noisy environment also makes concentration difficult. Therefore, try to taste wines in a quite environment and if this is not possible (at festivals, for instance) bear in mind that your tasting will be impaired and you need more concentration to evaluate the wine.

Picking the wrong glass; that being the wrong shape or size, the thickness of the glassware, or even worse smells of detergent or dust in the glass, can also effect the wine’s flavour, our impression of its colour, and the mouthfeel.

Just as the environment, the temperature of the wine will also have an impact on your impressions. Same goes for the age of the wine and any residual flavours from what you have just been drinking or eating. Therefore, you will want to neutralise the tasting conditions, so the wine stands a fair chance on its own. Is the wine served too cold, then warm it with your hands. If the glass looks dirty, rinse it well with the wine, not water, swirling it around to cover all the sides of the glass.

Evaluate the appearance

Once your tasting conditions are good enough, the next step is to examine the wine in your glass. It should be about 1/4 - 1/3 full. 

  • Looking straight - Look down straight into the glass of wine, then hold it towards the light and finally, give the glass a tilt. All this helps one to examine the complete colour range of the wine. Looking down, you get a sense of the color depth, which can indicate the density and saturation of the wine. 

  • From the side - To check the clarity of the wine, hold the glass in light and view it through the side of the glass. A clear wine is a positive. A murky wine might be a sign of fermentation or chemical problems. But it could also just be a unfiltered wine or a wine that has shaken up sediment due to transport.

  • Tilt it - Tilting the glass so the wine thins out toward the rim can indicate age and weight of the wine. Is the color pale and watery near the edge, it might be an indication of a thin wine. If the color looks tawny or brown (for a white wine) or orange or rusty brick (for a red wine) it is either an older wine or a wine that has been oxidized and might be past its prime.

  • Swirl it - Giving the glass a good swirl can help one make out the "tears" or "legs" that form in the wine and slip down the side of the glass. Good legs signify riper, denser, stronger wines with high alcohol levels. 

Evaluating the aroma

Having inspected the wine through your eyes, it's time to concentrate on the aroma. Swirl the wine and start a series of good sniffs. Repeat and process your experience. Try to identify each aroma you experience. This is hard in the beginning, but it will get easier with training. In the beginning you might wish to look at a taste chart, which you can find examples of online, which will help you identify the aromas.

  • Finding the flaws - Start of by looking for off-aromas which can indicate that the wine is off. Corked wine will smell like a musty old cellar and taste like a wet cardboard. 

    Brettanomyces — a wild yeast that is often identified as smelling of sweaty saddle. A tiny bit of “brett” add earthy, leathery component to reds but too much will destroy the fruit flavours.

    Vinegar indicates volatile acidit and nail polish smell is ethyl acetate.

  • Fruit aromas - If you haven't found any off notes, look for fruit aromas. Wine is fermented grape juice, which is why it often smells like fresh fruit, unless it is very old, very sweet, or too cold.

  • Flowers and spices - You will find floral aromas in cool climate white wines like Riesling and Gewürztraminer and Viognier.

    Sauvignon Blanc is grassy and Cabernet Sauvignon herby with hints of vegetation. Rhône reds will sometimes showcase Provençal herbs. 

    Some wines are characterised as earthy. Mushroom, damp earth and leather is found in many red wines. Mushrooms can add nuance; it can also help you determine a possible grape or place of origin of the wine. But too much is a sign of grapes failed to ripen sufficiently or were from an inferior clone.

  • Barrel/wood aromas - If the aroma has wood, smoke, vanilla, roasted nuts, or caramel the wine has probably been conditioned in new oak barrels.

    The type of oak, the age of the barrels, the level of char and the way the winemaker has mixed and matched them, barrels can impart a vast array of scents and flavours to finished wines. 

  • The others - Young whites can have a scent reminding you of beer which often come from the yeast.

    Strong honey in sweeter wines is evidence of botrytis, also referred to as noble rot, and is typical for Auslese and Sauternes.

    Chardonnays that sometimes smell like buttered popcorn or caramel is a sign of malolactic fermentation, which converts malic to lactic acids which softens the wine and opens up the aromas.

    Old wines are often more complex and less fruity.

Time to taste

Take a sip and aerate the wine which will also circulates it throughout your mouth. You should expect a range of fruit, flower, herb, mineral, barrel and other flavors and repeat you experience from the aroma, most will follow right along. Start by identifying the flavours you experience and then move on to determine if the wine is balanced, harmonious, complex, and evolved.

  • Balance - Balanced wine should have its flavour components in good proportion. We can detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.

    Sweet and sour are important components of wine and bitterness often derives from tannin astringency.

    No formula will fit all wines, but balance is key. If the wine is too sour, too astringent, too sugary,  too hot (alcoholic), too bitter, or too flabby then it is unbalanced.

  • Harmony - A harmonious wine has it's flavors proportioned and well integrated. It won't have sharp edged or something that sticks out from other.

  • Complexity - A complex wine flavour changes from the moment you taste it to the moment you swallow.

Once you understand the basic steps of wine tasting, it’s time to experiment on your own. Taking notes is helpful for your understanding of wine. It's time to explore.

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